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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The United States, with help from Britain, a few hours ago, unleashed a series of airstrikes on the Houthis, the main military force in Yemen, a force backed by Iran.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

President Biden says he ordered the strikes because of what he called unprecedented and reckless attacks by the Houthis on commercial ships in the Red Sea.

FADEL: The president says his aim is to put an end to those attacks, but the Houthis are vowing to do exactly the opposite and step up the assaults. For more, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: Good morning. So what do we know at this point about these strikes?

MYRE: So the U.S. carried out these strikes from ships, from planes, and it included a submarine as well. As you noted, Britain took part with airstrikes of its own. More than a dozen sites were targeted in the western part of Yemen. And these are places where the Houthis have been firing missiles and drones at more than two dozen commercial ships in the Red Sea since November. The U.S. Navy's protecting these ships. It's been shooting down the incoming Houthi weapons and repeatedly warning the Houthis to knock it off. And for President Biden, it appears the final straw came on Tuesday, when the Houthis launched more than 20 drones and missiles, including some directed at a U.S. commercial ship with an U.S. Navy ship nearby.

FADEL: So you mentioned there that it's more than a dozen strikes carried out by the U.S. and the U.K. Were they effective? Will they deter the Houthis from carrying out more strikes?

MYRE: Yeah, we really don't know those kinds of details yet. The strikes took place overnight in Yemen. The U.S. military is likely to get a much better picture today in daylight. The U.S. Navy has been watching closely for two months, so they should have a pretty good idea about the places the Houthis were using to launch these attacks. But even if the U.S. and British strikes were on target and did inflict damage, the Houthis are believed to have more weapons, and the Houthis today are vowing to carry out more attacks. And they say they're doing this in solidarity with the Palestinians.

FADEL: I mean, this is a region already on fire - the war in Gaza, there have been U.S. strikes in Syria and Iraq against Iranian-backed militias following attacks by them, the Houthis attacking in the Red Sea. I mean, what's the risk here of real escalation?

MYRE: Yeah, that's very real, Leila. More countries could be drawn into the fighting. President Biden has been very aware of this since the Israel-Hamas fighting began three months ago, saying repeatedly he doesn't want this war to become a wider regional conflict. But Biden is now saying he can't allow international commercial shipping to be disrupted in this way. The Red Sea is a major shipping lane connecting Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and ships are having to take this much longer and more expensive route around the southern tip of Africa. So Biden is trying to get the Houthis to back down without igniting this larger regional conflict. And it's a real gamble. It's a real risk.

FADEL: Now, Greg, before I let you go, I mean, we have to talk about Iran's role in all this. I mean, what is Iran's role here?

MYRE: Yeah, a senior U.S. official describes Iran as the primary enabler of the Houthis, saying Iran provides the weapons, providing intelligence on the ships. And we should also note Iran is the main backer of Hamas, arming that group for years in Gaza. It's the main patron of Hezbollah in Lebanon. So Iran is condemning these U.S. and British strikes and will be watching closely to see what sort of signals Iran sends about all this turmoil.

FADEL: NPR's Greg Myre. Thanks for your reporting, Greg.

MYRE: Sure thing, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Israel today presents its rebuttal to the charge of genocide it faces in the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

MARTÍNEZ: The case is being brought by South Africa, a longtime critic of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Yesterday, South Africa argued that Israel's response to the Hamas attack of October 7, which, according to Israel killed 1,200, is directed not just at Hamas militants but at all Palestinians in Gaza. More than 23,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Israel's response to the Hamas attack, according to Gaza's health ministry.

FADEL: NPR's Rob Schmitz is covering the proceedings from Berlin and joins us now. Good morning, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So South Africa said yesterday that the, quote, "level of Israel's killing is so extensive that nowhere is safe in Gaza." The case has gotten international attention. What's the reaction been?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, I'll start with reaction outside the court itself in The Hague.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SHOUTING)

MYRE: And Leila, there were hundreds of people rallying there, chanting slogans for both sides. NPR producer Abu Bakr Bashir had a chance to speak to a few of them. He spoke to teacher Shimon Keyes, who had come there from London. Keyes is a Jew, and he does not support Israel's military campaign. When asked about how he thought Israel would respond in court today, here's what he said.

SHIMON KEYES: I assume that they will try and bring up the same message that they constantly do, which is you have to help us because, you know, the Holocaust, never again. But I think that this line is starting to lose its power.

SCHMITZ: And, Leila, Keyes said he agreed with the charge of genocide against Israel, given the widespread destruction throughout Gaza.

FADEL: And how is - I know Israel will be presenting its defense in court today, but how is Israel responding to yesterday's hearing?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, Israel started yesterday when the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, responded by saying the hypocrisy of South Africa knows no bounds. Here's his statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: And Netanyahu is saying here - he called the Israel Defense Forces the most moral army in the world, and he said it was doing everything to avoid harming civilians. He went on to say that the state of Israel is accused of genocide at a time when it is fighting genocide, and he reiterated that militants on October 7 committed the worst crimes against Jews since the Holocaust. And this statement is likely a preview of what we are going to hear today when Israel presents its defense to the 17 judges at the International Court of Justice.

FADEL: OK, so as you mentioned, Israel - South Africa had its turn yesterday. Israel takes the stand today. I'm assuming, though, a ruling on this will take quite a while.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, it may not come for years, but yesterday South Africa devoted much of its three-hour testimony to trying to persuade the court to issue what's called a provisional ruling. This is similar to an emergency injunction whereby the court could direct Israel to stop its military campaign in Gaza and allow more aid to reach Palestinians there, anything that would show that it's not aggravating this dispute. And that provisional ruling could come within weeks.

FADEL: Now, what would a provisional ruling like that actually do? Do nations typically comply?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, you know, I spoke to a legal scholar earlier this week about this who has kept track of the International Court of Justice rulings over the years. And he found that states comply in only half of all provisional rulings. But he also pointed out that because these rulings tend to declare certain values of the international order, if a state refuses to comply, it reminds the rest of the world which side of that international order that they're on, and it can have long-term political consequences. Now, we do not know how the court will rule in this particular case, but it's a good bet we'll have more clarity in the coming weeks.

FADEL: That's NPR's Berlin correspondent, Rob Schmitz. Thanks, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Taiwan is voting for a new president Saturday.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, elections are a big deal on the self-ruled island. Residents there could only start directly electing their leaders in the mid-1990s, and China is always a big issue. It wants control over Taiwan and is closely watching the outcome of the elections.

FADEL: NPR's Emily Feng is in Taiwan covering these elections. Good morning, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So how is this election shaping up?

FENG: Well, it's a dramatic one, as usual. Elections here are super colorful. They revolve around these rallies that are more like rock concerts. And there's been weeks of door-knocking already, the usual mud-slinging and, of course, this ongoing debate about how to deter China from influencing Taiwan or perhaps even invading it. But presidential election so far is really boiling down to two parties - the ruling DPP, whose candidate, William Lai, wants to continue moving trade away from China and build up diplomatic ties with the U.S. against China. Beijing, by the way, despises him. They've put out a statement yesterday saying that Lai is walking the, quote, "evil path" towards formally declaring independence for Taiwan, and they'd already sanctioned his running mate. And then on the other side in Taiwan, there's the KMT party, and their candidate, Hou Yu-ih, wants more engagement with China. He wants to deter it militarily, but he also wants to trade with China and to open up cultural exchanges. In Taiwan, voter polls are banned in the about week and a half leading up to voting, but so far, the DPP's Lai is expected to win the presidency.

FADEL: Right, and he's the candidate that wants less engagement with China. What would winning mean for Taiwan and for its relations with China if Lai wins?

FENG: Well, in the short term, probably a slight escalation in the existing Chinese military activity around Taiwan. Beijing's already threatened more tariffs on Taiwanese goods if the DPP wins. Both American and Taiwanese security officials have been telling NPR Beijing is stepping up its disinformation efforts in Taiwan, so they're trying to scare or misinform voters into choosing more pro-China candidates. And then earlier this week, China launched a satellite that went directly over southern Taiwan, which led to this interesting moment at a press briefing at Taiwan's foreign ministry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: A satellite carried by a rocket flew over Taiwan, and debris might fall. And therefore there was a national alert being issued.

FENG: What you're hearing is an emergency missile alert going out to everyone's phone in Taiwan, including mine and including that of the foreign ministers, who had to explain to us that this was not a Chinese missile, but a satellite launch from China. But in general, we've been seeing China take all these piecemeal efforts to try to pressure Taiwan to vote a certain way. But they've stopped short of actual military aggression, and there's no sign China wants to instigate war over this election.

FADEL: So voting starts in less than a day. Where you are, Emily, what are you looking out for?

FENG: I'm looking out for the legislature results because it looks like no one party will get a majority, which means that regardless of who the president is we're going to see a lot of political gridlock on significant budget and national defense issues in Taiwan. I'm also looking forward to voting, actually, because in Taiwan, for security reasons, there is no absentee voting. Everything is done in person by hand on paper, and all the votes are counted in public by hand as well, with the results usually coming out that evening after just a few hours.

FADEL: That's NPR's Emily Feng in Taipei, Taiwan. Thank you, Emily.

FENG: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.